Why do we believe in the supernatural?

Why do people yearn for immortality, heaven. or salvation? Why is there a draw, within us, to seek metaphysical explanations? Why do we feel we need supernatural worlds, explanations, and beings?

Neurotheology has offered some solutions. In recent years there have been articles written about the so-called god-gene, or whether there are certain parts of the brain that are responsible for believing in gods or at least spiritual experiences. There has been some success in these attempts, and it is clear that some religious experience is certainly the brain doing its thing.

There are other aspects to this need. Culture, social pressures, insecurity and so forth play their parts. I’ve met too many people who, despite not believing, continue to attend church, profess belief, and just cruise along because of the effects of being open about their skepticism and doubt would damage their family life, work life, or relationship with neighbors. I’ll bet that quite a few of those family members and neighbors would react to them coming out because they repress their own insecurities about those same beliefs.

But I digress.

Religion is natural. In a strange way, this is ironic, but it is true. Through our evolution we have developed powers of cognition that allow us to do amazing things, creative things, beautiful things. But the brain did not develop specifically to do these things. Our brain developed, through millions of years of natural and sexual selection, to be predictors of the future, solvers of patterns, and tool makers.

The skills necessary to complete such ardent tasks came with a price. Because while we will try to predict and solve, it surely is better, for example, to assume something non-animate is animate than the other way around. That is, it is better to assume something moving in the shadows, in the corner of the eye, or even looked at directly has a conscious agency than to assume the other way around because otherwise we may not run from predators. Ancestors who had different tools would have been lunch, thus they would not have had as many offspring. Natural selection at work.

As a result of this, early humans probably saw agency in nature everywhere, hence the early concept of gods for just about anything including lightning, wind, the sun, water, etc. As these concepts developed and matured, our ancestors imagined that conscious intelligent agents were behind the world until we had pantheons of gods with myths to explain them. Stories of origins were composed, told, and created a sense of meaning and purpose, and eventually rituals, rules, etc were concocted along with the development of society and culture. Politics were created, language made more complex, and all along was the agencies behind the natural world, tied into our very thinking about the world around us.

The very symbols, words, and concepts that were used to explain and understand the world was tied directly into the thought patterns which also created supernatural agency. That is, our minds are imperfect, our intellect inadequate, or perceptions imprecise. And these are the same tools we use today to understand the world. With better tools and methods for getting around these imperfections, our understanding is better than it ever was before. But we had to overcome our imperfections to some degree before we could see the blind-spots, biases, and unconscious assumptions guiding our worldviews.

Nietzsche, the 19th century German writer, philosopher, and lover of words, wrote the following.

The metaphysical need is not the origin of religions, as Shopenhauer supposed, but merely a late offshoot. Under the rule of religious ideas, one has become accustomed to the notion of “another world (behind, below, above)”–and when religious ideas are destroyed one is troubled by an uncomfortable emptiness and deprivation. From this feeling grows, once again “another world”, but now merely a metaphysical one that is no longer religious. But what first led to the positing of “another world” in primeval times was not some impulse or need but an error in the interpretation of certain natural events, a failure of the intellect.

The Gay Science, aphorism 151

Nietzsche understood, as many more do now, that the intellect is flawed. Unlike Plato, who thought the intellect the key to the Good (which would ultimately influence the concept of the Christian God, through both Paul and Augustine), he and we understand that our intellect is not purely rational, but it can be made more logical and rational through practice, training, and a desire to understand the truth even if the truth is not kind or pleasant.

Know thyself. Find your biases, blind-spots, and flaws in your mind. Seek out the truth on its terms. Religion will help us understand who we have been, who we may be now, but it can do little to tell us what we will be if we desire the truth. We will need different methods for that.

Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial.

Nietzsche, The Gay Science aphorism 126